Gifts with a Conscience: Spotlight on Libera Terra

Libera Terra anti-Mafia cooperativeLibera Terra, an anti-Mafia cooperative in Italy, is inspiring, courageous, well worth supporting… and a great source for Christmas gifts.

No, really.

Libera Terra

Volunteers working a confiscated vineyard in Puglia

As everyone knows, Italy has a problem with organized crime. Libera Terra is one of the few, and bravest, grassroots organizations fighting it. Since a law was passed 13 years ago, saying that property acquired illegally be given to the community, more than 4,500 villas, farms, and other properties have been seized and returned to the people.

Libera Terra, which means "Free Land," sprung up from this law. The cooperative works the seized lands to produce (organic!) oil, wine, pasta, preserves, and other goodies; some of the agriturismi are available to stay at overnight (what a cool way to both delve into the local culture and support a good cause!). And each year, they run international community service camps, and they also often organize demonstrations and awareness-raising events against the Mafia's influence.

Think that sounds pretty cool? Me, too. 

And the good news is… you can support them. And give some cool gifts (including, maybe, to yourself). At the same time.

Here are a few ways:

Give organic, Italian foods and wines

Libera Terra wines, a great gift for those living in ItalyRemember how we talked about all of those gifts that would be great for foodies? Well, add this one to the list. Libera Terra sells all-organic, specialty Italian-food items–like Gragnano pasta, limoncello, marmalade made from Sicilian oranges, taralli, and wine. The prices are extremely fair, too (think €8 for a half-liter bottle of extra virgin olive oil, or €2.75 for a bag of Pugliese tarallini). 

If you don't want to pick items individually, right now, Libera Terra offers several beautifully-packed Christmas gift box options, including the large gift box (12 items, including wine, for €45), the medium gift box (6 items, including wine, for €26), or this set of three southern Italian wines (€23). 

You can place an order at the online Libera Terra shop; unfortunately, they only ship within Italy. Or, if you're coming to Italy, you can buy goods at one of Libera Terra's botteghe across the country. The newest was just opened in Milan last weekend; there are also stores in Florence, Pisa, Turin, Genova, Naples, and Palermo, among other cities (here's the complete list of Libera Terra shops). In Rome, the store, which is called "'La Bottega dei sapori e dei saperi della Legalità,"  was actually the first one opened in Italy. It's located at Via dei Prefetti 23; call +39 0669925262 for more.

Give the gift of travel—and a stay at an agriturismo in the land of The Godfather

Agriturismo run by Libera Terra

Portella della Ginestra, an agriturismo in Sicily run by Libera Terra

Know anyone traveling to Sicily—or planning to travel yourself? Then give the gift of a stay at one of the agriturismi run by Libera Terra. 

Agriturismi are, in my opinion, Italy's best-kept accommodation secret. These are farms, usually with separate guesthouses, where you can stay overnight. Usually, you have the option of a home-cooked dinner and breakfast. I've stayed in more than 100 of them, and the experiences have ranged—but I haven't had a single negative one. And contrary to misconceptions, no, you're not expected to help out on the farm or with the cooking, and no, you don't have to stay for a week or longer–often you can stay for just one night!

So I'm pretty psyched that it turns out that Libera Terra runs their own. And not only do they have two… but they're both in the Corleone province, made famous, of course, first by real Mafia bosses—and then by The Godfather's Vito Corleone. Pretty powerful stuff. 

You can see their program of agriturismi in English here. Notable is that at each of the two agriturismi, Portella della Ginestra and Terre di Corleone, all-organic food is prepared with Slow Food principles. Both are near nature reserves, and the Portella della Ginestra is adjacent to a horse-riding center. Prices—starting at €70 per night, including all meals—are pretty darn good.

Agriturismo run by Libera Terra

Dining room at Terre di Corleone

Finally, if you know anyone who's free Dec. 27-29—or if you are—there's a special "Weekend in Palermo" offered by Libera Terra. The escape includes two nights at a hotel in Palermo and visits to the Libera Terra-run farms on the Corleone land, all in a small group of just 12 to 15 participants. It's €198 per person.

Give a membership, including a subscription to Libera Terra's magazine

Narcomafie magazine of Libera TerraShow your support—and stay up-to-date with what's going on with the fight against criminal networks in the world—by becoming a member (or buying a membership for someone else!). It costs just €1 for a membership for those under 18 and €5 for young people between 18 and 25. For those over 25, it's just €15 for a year-long membership, including the magazine's 12 issues sent in PDF form, or €30 for those who want the magazine sent in print.

The magazine, Narcomafie, is in Italian, and the print issue only appears to be sent within Italy; however, if you live abroad and speak some Italian, I'm sure they'd be happy to PDF you the files for the cheaper membership fee!

Donate to Libera Terra

Not in Italy right now, but really, really like the sound of what Libera Terra is up to? Then donate! All you need is a credit card, and every little bit helps.

Please note that all photographs in this post are used courtesy of Libera Terra. 

Check out my Italian gift guide calendar to make sure you don't miss a good idea!

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Gift Ideas for Italy Lovers: The Food Edition

GIFT guide for foodies
Looking for a gift for someone who loves food—especially Italian food? Then do them, and me, a favor: Don't get them a gift certificate to the Olive Garden or a gift basket of random, made-in-the-U.S. products that reflect little to nothing of Italian food culture. 

These days, there's no reason to. Thank modern technology. Even if you're not in Italy, you can buy authentic, Italian foods—including cheeses, meats, pastas, coffees, and more—that make fantastic gifts for foodies and Italophiles alike. 

Whether you're looking for a stocking stuffer, a single present, or some items to put together your own gift basket, here are some Italian food gift ideas to get you started. 

(This is the first of a series of holiday gift guides I'll be publishing!).

Stocking stuffers for the sweet-toothed

BaciOf Italy's many kinds of Christmas cakes, panettone the most famous. Originally from Milan, it's studded with raisins and candied fruit peels. Although it's best to get it fresh from a local baker, you can get it online if you have to.

Baci chocolates are so well-known in Italy, "Baci" is a common gelato flavor. And no wonder: They're a blend of milk chocolate and ground hazelnutes (dubbed gianduia), crowned with a hazelnut and covered in dark chocolate. In other words… I'm not sure there's a chocolate lover in the world who wouldn't want to see this box under their tree. Unless they were allergic to nuts.

The Italian spread Nutella has become a worldwide sensation, and with reason: This creamy, hazelnut-and-chocolate spread goes on, well, almost anything. Including your finger, straight out of the jar. Top off the topping with The Unofficial Guide to Nutella, a fun, easy-to-read, and recipe-filled book by my friends Sara Rosso and Michelle Fabio. 

Staples for anyone: Italian olive oil and balsamic vinegar

Top-notch Italian olive oil is always a great gift

Top-notch Italian olive oil, like this one from Fontanaro, is always a great gift

As any "foodie" knows, great food starts with great ingredients. And few staples are more important, whether you're cooking "Italian" or not, than a great olive oil or balsamic vinegar. Frankly, I don't like to cook. But if I just drizzle a little bit of a top-notch, extra-virgin olive oil (more on what that is in a moment) on pasta or a salad, somehow, I feel like I'm eating food whipped up by Mario Batali himself.  

So, when it comes to olive oil, choose your oil carefully. Extra-virgin is a must, but that's not enough, since fraud is rampant in the olive oil industry. Seventy percent of extra-virgin olive oils sold worldwide aren't extra-virgin, in fact, but are cut with lower-grade oils.

Some trustworthy places to buy olive oil include the selection of Italian, imported oils at Zingerman's or the Corti Brothers (who also, by the way, have some other amazing-looking, authentic Italian food products).

My favorite extra-virgin olive oil, though, is produced by my friend Alina at Fontanaro, an organic agriturismo on the Tuscan-Umbrian border run by Alina and her mother. Their oil is rated as among the best in Italy by guides like Gambero Rosso and Slow Food; it's also organic, delicious, and can be shipped anywhere in the world. And the prices couldn't be more fair. Email for more info, or check out Cleo's Fine Oils and Vinegars, which sometimes has Fontanaro's oils in stock. (And yes: This is the olive oil I have on my counter right now).

Pick your balsamic vinegar of Modena carefully, as well; you always want to make sure it has the "D.O.P." label, which means that it was, in fact, created in Modena, using the right grapes, the right process, and meeting the right quality standards. (In the U.S., we can call anything "balsamic vinegar of Modena," even if it never touched Italy). The award-winning Vigna Oro Balsamic Vinegar di Modena DOP is a good bet.

For caffeine addicts 

Christmas gift from ItalyDo right by the caffeine-lovers in your life. If you can't make it to Sant'Eustachio, the best spot for coffee in Rome, in person to scoop up some blends as a gift, you're still in luck: They now have blends available online. Pick from whole beans or ground coffee.

And to really have coffee the Italian way, don't forget the espresso maker. These little contraptions are small, cheap, and long-lasting, and they're an integral part of Italy's coffee culture: I have yet to enter a single Italian kitchen that doesn't have at least one of these sitting on the stove (and no American filter-coffee machine in sight!). 

For cheese and meat-lovers 

Christmas gifts from Italy for foodies

Give the carnivore in your life a real taste of Italy…

Although it seems a little random (you're going to give someone meats and cheeses? really?), this can be a great gift. A couple of years ago, I made up a basket of cured meats I'd brought from Italy for my stepfather, a real guy's guy; he loved it (and, needless to say, it disappeared quickly). 

Just remember that it's impossible to get cured meats, like prosciutto, as thinly-sliced as they would be at an Italian butcher. So to go a step beyond, consider giving an electric food slicer to go with that array of meats.

If you're not in Italy, and you can't find authentic, Italian meats and salamis at your local butcher (if you want the "real deal," always ask where they're sourced from), then check into ordering online. (As with all of these products, ensure that what you're buying is made in and shipped from Italy and, if applicable, protected by "D.O.P." or "I.G.P." status). Mortadella from Bologna might be where we got our "baloney" from, but yes, the real deal is a completely different (and tastier) story. For a less-known meat, speck from Alto Adige is a lightly-smoked, dry-cured ham from the Tyrolean region of Italy . My favorite, though—and this is something that's in my kitchen here in Rome right now—is the delicious standby, prosciutto di Parma.

FontinaFor cheese-lovers, an array of some of Italy's best cheeses can't go wrong. Some of my favorites include fontina from theValle d'AostaPecorino Romano from Rome, caciotta al tartufo from Umbriaricotta salata from Sicily, and, of course, the two most famous guys: fresh mozzarella di bufala from Campania (I promise, it's completely different than mozzarella back home) and Parmigiano Reggiano from Parma (also completely unlike that powdery stuff you get in the green cans in U.S. grocery stores). Yum!

Books for cooks

CookbookThis book hits shelves tomorrow, but it's already available for pre-order… and looks fantastic. The Encyclopedia of Italian Cooking, published by the editors of La Cucina Italiana magazine, features how-tos for every quintessential Italian cooking technique, from how to shape tortellini to how to recognize a San Marzano tomato. Some 500 recipes are included, too. A great gift for beginners to Italian cooking, or for those who want to brush up on their techniques. 

(Another nice gift idea, of course, is a subscription to La Cucina Italiana magazine).

Cookbook 2Or go for the bible of Italian country cooking. La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy got its start 50 years ago, when Italian scholars gathered to figure out how they could preserve traditional, Italian cooking in the face of so much change. The Italian Academy of Cuisine did research in hundreds of villages, getting recipes right from people cooking in front of their stoves, and gathered these 2,000 recipes, which include arancini di riso from Sicily, buridda (fish stew) from Liguria, and everything in between.

 For a cookbook of Italian recipes at their most authentic, check out the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Don't expect any spaghetti and meatball recipes here: Instead, there are fantastic treatments of classics like ossobucco, polenta, gnocchi, risotto, and more.

I love the idea behind the beautifully-photographed The Italian Farmer's Table: Authentic Recipes and Local Lore from Northern ItalyIt gathers 150 recipes taken directly from agriturismi in northern Italy. In other words, it doubles as a cookbook… and as inspiration for anyone planning on visiting northern Italy and wanting ideas of where to go, what to eat, and even what agriturismi to stay in!

For winos wine-lovers

Wine, a great gift for Italophiles
Pair a bottle of excellent Italian wine with a little background reading for the recipient. One great place for wine-lovers to start is Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy, which covers Italy's wine-producing regions, identifies their most important wine styles, prodcuers, and vintages, and even includes recipes.  

Wine Map of Italyis, literally, a map—and any wine-lover will want to have it as a reference at hand, or even tacked to their wall. It includes Italy's DOC, DOCG and IGT wine zones, plus an index booklet.

Gambero Rosso's Italian Wines has always been the number-one way to sort out Italy's best vintages, from the rest. The Italian Wines 2012version is a little different than past ones, but wine enthusiasts will still want to have it on their shelves.

For those who like reading about food (almost) as much as eating it

BookHow Italian Food Conquered the World is a great look at, well, how Italian food conquered the world—or, more accurately, how it transformed as it moved from Italy into immigrant communities abroad. I've written about the book before.

Waverley Root's The Food of Italy is a classic; each chapter covers a different Italian region, with basics about the area's food culture and its most popular dishes. 

Probably the most fun of all of these reads, Delizia!: The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food is a well-written, fast-paced history of Italy—told through its food, from Renaissance banqueting halls to 19th-century Naples alleyways.

Olive oil's history isn't just thousands of years long… it's also full of scandal—perhaps not so surprising in an industry that has as much money in it as hard drugs (!). This book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, started as a New Yorker article, and it's on my bookshelf Kindle as we speak. 

Liked this gift guide? Then make sure to check out the other ones I'll be posting soon!

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Announcing: Gift Guides for Italophiles

Italy gift guides
Looking for the perfect gift for someone who loves Italy? Starting tomorrow, I'm going to be running a series of guides on Italy gift ideas. These guides include both gifts that you can order to be shipped abroad, and gifts that you can procure if you're living here in Italy. So I'm hoping both Italophiles here in Italy, and elsewhere, will find them helpful!

(Update:Don't miss the 2014 Italy gift guides, including the best gifts for Italy-bound travelers and the finest Italian gifts on the web!).

The calendar:

Monday, November 12: Gifts for foodies, cooks, and coffee-lovers

Thursday, November 15: Gifts with a conscience: Spotlight on Libera Terra

Sunday, November 18: Gift ideas for culture vultures and history nerds

Wednesday, November 21: Gifts with a conscience: Spotlight on Italian artisans—whose work can be shipped abroad

Tuesday, November 26: Gift ideas for those traveling to Italy

Friday, November 30: A roundup of my favorite shops here in Rome for finding one-of-a-kind gifts 

Exhaustive? Yes. Helpful? I hope so!


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Trenitalia or Italo Treno? The Verdict on Italy’s High-Speed Trains

Trying to decide on Trenitalia or Italo Treno? Been there. And having sampled both, I’ve definitely got an opinion.

I’ve always had a thing for Italy’s trains. No, not so much the regional trains, although they get the job done (and are cheap!). But the fast trains. Ask me how I want to get to Milan or Venice from Rome, and I’ve always replied with the Frecciarossa or Frecciabianca. (Even the names are pretty!).

But being loyal to Italy’s national rail service, at least when it comes to the Frecciarossa and Frecciabianca, gets expensive. If you’re booking last minute, like I tend to, you can expect to pay €85 and up for a 3 or 3.5-hour trip from Rome to Milan. (Book far enough in advance to take advantage of an Economy or Super Economy ticket, rather than the Base price that’s usually all that’s left by the time I get there, and that can drop to about €60).

So when I first heard about the new Italo Treno — nicknamed the “Ferrari train,” thanks to the fact that the company is headed by the president of Ferrari — I knew I had to try it. Italy’s first high-speed private rail service, with stops at major cities including Naples, Florence, Rome, Milan, and Venice, it was competitively priced. And it looked pretty luxurious.

Trenitalia or Italo Treno?
Even the “Smart” (basic”) car of the Italo Treno looks pretty, well, smart

I felt a little guilty, at first, even thinking of booking a ticket with Italo Treno. After all, Italy’s national rail service had been pretty good to me.

But Italo Treno was new, and shiny, and I kept hearing about it in the news. So when it first launched, back in the spring, I tried to book a ticket.

And was rejected.

In fact, for every date I tried, no seats were left. Italo Treno just wasn’t available.

I tried not to take it personally: After all, Italo Treno was in high demand. I was just one more person in line, eager to try it out. And, for its first few months, Italo Treno had only a handful of operating lines; it was stretched too thin.

A few months later, I tried again. This time, I had more success.

Last week, I booked a Rome-to-Milan trip the night before I had to leave; I had no problem getting a ticket in the “Smart,” or economy, class car. The price: €61. I returned a week later, with the same deal.

Trenitalia or Italo Treno
The interior of the “Smart,” or economy, car

The Frecciarossa and Italo Treno trains have a lot in common. But from my very first impression, even just over the internet, Italo Treno had the edge. For one thing, booking my seat seemed way easier. Trenitalia’s website is notoriously tough to navigate, even (or especially) in the “English” option. Italo Treno’s site is much simpler — although, to be fair, much of that is because there are way fewer destination options (with only 11 stations to stop at, a drop-down list makes sense… not so on the Trenitalia site!).

Both Trenitalia and Italo Treno let you get your ticket texted to your phone, for free — no need to print anything out or collect a ticket at the station.

Still, I knew it was easy to represent yourself in a positive light online. The real test would be what Italo Treno was like in person.

The first thing that struck me? How friendly Italo Treno was, and how caring. An Italo Treno worker, dressed in a crisp uniform, stood at the one corner where it might have been possible to get confused (was the platform left, or right?), simply to assure people they were headed in the right direction. And on the platform itself, every carriage had one or two young, professional-looking workers standing outside the doors, all in their uniforms, all smiling. 

As well as warm and welcoming, the train was beautiful, spotless, and stylish.  The windows were noticeably bigger than those on the Trenitalia trains, making the space feel airier and less crampled. (I didn’t notice much more seatroom, but both trips, I did have an empty seat next to me, which was just as nice).

High speed trains in Italy
The beautiful scenery on the Rome to Milan route — better appreciated with bigger windows!

When we got going, though, the most surprising perk was the noise reduction. Because the engine system is distributed throughout the whole train, and because the engines are on the undercarriage, the train is much quieter than others I’ve experienced. Instead of arriving at my destination exhausted, my brain tired of dealing with all that nonstop, ambient noise, I felt energetic and relaxed. That, alone, made the switch worth it.

I also loved having Wi-Fi, which worked beautifully… except in tunnels, despite Italo Treno’s promise that it would. (Each carriage has its own satellite antenna). Still during each 3-hour ride, I only noticed the internet stop working four or five times, and it went back on within a minute or two. I forgave Italo Treno for that one oversight. (It’s worth noting that the Frecciarossa also now has internet, but I haven’t tried it out yet).

So. Yes. Italo Treno, I think I’m in love. And I can’t wait until we get to meet again.

(Sorry, Frecciarossa. You’ll always be the reason why I first fell in love with trains in Italy. And I still think your name is prettier).

You can book your trip with Italo Treno here or (I haven’t forgotten you, Trenitalia!) your trip on a high-speed Frecciarossa or Frecciabianca here. For either one, look in the upper right-hand corner to change the language to English. And, yes, you can use a U.S. credit card to book your ticket on either site.

Also: how should I schedule my sightseeing in Rome?, a fun tour of Rome’s hidden ancient spots and what to do in Rome when you’ve done… everything.

Liked this post? You’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Updated, Expanded and New for 2017, which includes many more tips and tricks like these in more than 200 information-packed — but never overwhelming! — pages. It’s available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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The Best Lakes Near Rome

Lago di Bracciano, one of the loveliest lakes near Rome

Lago Bracciano, one of the loveliest lakes near Rome

When it comes to day trips from Rome, the area's lakes provide some of the best places for peace, quiet, and gorgeous scenery. 

Yes, most visitors to Rome head to the seaside when they're craving some water. But especially this time of year, when the beaches are getting downright chilly, the lakes can be a better option. That's particularly true as the trees start to change color. As any autumn-lover knows, the only thing more beautiful than a brightly-colored forest is a brightly-colored forest… that's reflected in a lake's still water.

In the summer, too, the lakes make a great escape from the city—and one that's less crowded, as most Italians tend to head to the seaside instead. (That said? If you're going on a summer weekend, consider taking the train instead of driving. Parking at the lakes' most popular stops is limited, and the traffic going into, and out of, Rome can add an hour or more to your commute).

Year-round, here are my three favorite lakes near Rome!

Lake Bracciano

Lago di bracciano

Lake Bracciano in autumn

The second-largest lake in Lazio, Bracciano's also one of the area's cleanest: It's a water reservoir for Rome, so no motorboats are allowed, while runoff from the lake's towns is strictly controlled. That means that you can both swim in, and eat seafood from, the lake without having to worry about nasty bacteria or chemicals. (Sadly, this isn't the norm for many of Italy's lakes; Lake Lugano, Como, and Garda are all polluted to the degree that swimming isn't recommended).

Partly thanks to the motorboat ban, watersports like windsurfing and sailing are especially popular. And several of the lake's towns are well worth exploring; Bracciano, the (unsurprisingly) most famous, is especially adorable, with medieval, cobblestoned streets and a gorgeous view of the lake.

Oh, and a castle.

Lake Bracciano

Odescalchi Castle, at Lake Bracciano

If the castle sounds, or looks, familiar, by the way, it might just be because this is where Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were first linked, legally if not eternally, as TomKat. Although, honestly, I really hope that's not why you recognize it.

Getting there: By car, Bracciano is about a 45-minute drive (without traffice) north of Rome. By train, you can leave from the Roma-Ostiense station (a 5-minute walk from the Piramide stop on metro line B); the train takes about an hour to Bracciano and costs about 3 euros.

Lake Martignano

Lake Martignano, near Bracciano

Lago di Martignano

Nestled next to Lake Bracciano, Martignano looks like a runt on the map. But what comes with the tiny size is complete tranquility. Partly because it's tougher to get to: Even though it's right next to Lake Bracciano, there's no train station here, so you need a car.

If you can make the trip, though, it's worth it. Just make sure you head to Agriturismo il Castoro, where, for a small fee, you can enjoy use of the grass beach and (here's the real seller) the hammocks. On especially nice days, get there before noon so you can stake one out!

The "green beach" at Lake Martignano

The "green beach" at Lake Martignano

Another plus: The agriturismo has a cheap-and-simple restaurant (think grilled meats, vegetables, and beer), and you can eat overlooking the lake. Don't want to leave? You can camp overnight.

Getting there: Your only option is by car; it's about a 45-minute drive from Rome (depending on traffic). Agriturismo il Castoro is located at Via di Polline, 343, Anguillara Sabazia.

Lake Albano 

Lake Albano

Water sports abound on Lake Albano

In the opposite direction of Rome from Bracciano and Martignano, Lake Albano is located in the Castelli Romani. Motorboats aren't allowed here, either, making the lake especially amenable to windsurfing and sailing—and to renting a pedalo, one of those funny little boats that you can pedal around the lake in yourself.

Be warned that there's not much beach to speak of; there's a little slice of grass next to the lake, but getting into the water itself involves a balancing act of avoiding falling into the mud. Renting a pedalo, taking it out to the middle of the lake, and jumping in from there is always a better option.

When you get your fill of the lake, walk the 15 or so minutes uphill to Castel Gandolfo. The Pope's residence in the summer, this medieval village, while tiny, has some perks, like gorgeous views of the lake and a couple of good restaurants. A friend of mine spent every weekend this summer at the lake taking windsurfing lessons introduced me to Arte e Vino, a cute, cozy cantina with the best lunch deal in town: plate after plate of antipasti for (if my memory serves me correctly… both times I've been there, I walked out in a serious food daze) 12 euros. 

Arte e Vino at Castel Gandolfo at Lake Albano

Just one of the many plates of antipasti at Arte e Vino…

Getting there: Without traffic, it's about a 35-minute drive south of Rome. By train from Rome's Termini station, it takes 45 minutes and costs just €2.10.

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The History Channel’s “Caligula: 1400 Days of Terror” Premieres in the U.S.

Caligula copy
Rumor has it he made his horse a consul, his palace a brothel, and his sisters his, erm, “girlfriends.” Two thousand years later, the jury’s still out on how crazy Emperor Caligula really was.But one thing’s for certain: He was, and remains, a fascinating character.

That’s why I was thrilled to be a host/”story-teller” for the History Channel’s 2-hour documentary on the Roman emperor, produced by North South Productions. And, having premiered in Australia and New Zealand, the documentary is finally coming out in the U.S.

So mark your calendars: The U.S. premiere date for “Caligula: 1400 Days of Terror” is Tuesday, Oct. 9 at 9pm. Tune in to hear me and other friends in Rome, including Katie Parla and Darius Arya, share the latest theories behind this still-mysterious figure!

Update, Oct. 4: The preview has just been put online! You can get a glimpse of the show here.

Update, Nov. 5: You can now buy the documentary for instant download from Amazon for $2.99; get it here.

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Five Weekend Escapes from Rome, in Pictures

Looking to get out of Rome for a couple of days? Here are five of my favorite weekend escapes!

Siena, Tuscany, a great day trip from Rome
Siena, one of my favorite cities, boasts medieval streets, incredible Renaissance art, graceful palaces, and one of the most incredible churches in Italy. It's a 3-hour train ride from Rome. Check out my other post on Siena, or my day trip itinerary over at Art Trav.


Monopoli, Puglia, Italy

Although it takes almost 5 hours to get here on the train from Rome, Monopoli, located in Puglia, has a beautiful beach, lovely streets, and top-notch food. It's also a great place to stay for the weekend to explore Puglia's other gems, like Bari or Polignano a Mare


Naples, Italy, a day trip from Rome

Although you could visit Naples in a day trip—on the high-speed train, it's just a little over an hour—the city's really worth at least a weekend. Evocative piazzas and palaces? Check. Some of the most important art in Italy? Check. One of the finest archaeological museums in the world? Check. Incredible food (including pizza), three castles, and the liveliest atmosphere you'll ever experience? Check, check and check. Here's my post on what to see in Naples, here's my weekend guide to where to stay and what to do for the weekend for New York Magazine, and here's my most recent article on why I love the city so much.


Ponza, off the coast from Rome

I owe you all a post on Ponza, the gorgeous island just a 2-hour ferry ride from Formia (itself an hour-long drive from Rome). But until then, this picture, of the cliffs on Ponza where Circe was said to have lived and seduced Odysseus, will suffice.

  Perugia, a great day or weekend trip from Rome

Perugia, located 2.5 hours from Rome on the train, is a gem of a city. It's also a great base to spend the weekend exploring Umbria, possibly my favorite region in all of Italy.

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What Do Travel Bloggers Owe the Places That Sustain Them? A Lingering Question from TBEX and TBU

TBEX conference at Keystone, Colorado

A quiet moment at TBEX 2012

This past weekend, I attended the Travel Blog Exchange Conference (TBEX, in bloggers’ lingo), in Keystone, Colorado. And I was blown away—by the organization, by the location (yay, mountains!), by the events, and by the other attendees. I’ll definitely be back.

But, long after the rooms had emptied of their 800 conference-goers, one question lingered in my mind.

We spent the weekend talking about influence. In particular, we spoke about how to grow that influence (seminars included “SEO for Beginners,” “How to Create a Social Media Strategy,” “Email Marketing with Your Newsletter”). And how to turn it into cash (“Monetize Like You Mean It,” “How to Work with Brands,” “Creating a Business with Your Blog”). 

There was little talk about what else we should do with that influence. Other than, of course, getting ridiculously rich off blogging being able to scrape together enough pennies to live (and, hopefully, travel).

This isn’t unique to TBEX. I visited Travel Bloggers Unite (TBU) in Umbria this spring, and the focus was the same: Social influence. Networking. Monetization. All good stuff—but, I think, missing an important part of the puzzle.

Especially as travel bloggers get more and more influential, what we each owe the locations, and people, we write about seems integral to the discussion. I would have loved, for example, some talk of what ethical responsibilities (if any!) come with publicizing “undiscovered” towns or regions. Or with giving further publicity to sites already unhealthily flooded with tourists. Or with how to decide when to write about a big, multinational hotel chain or an independent B&B. Or a chain store or a local artisan


Venice on the Ponte Rialto

Venice’s Ponte Rialto in August


And no, it’s not that each, or any, of us are a Rick Steves, able to single-handedly turn a corner of the world like the Cinque Terre from undiscovered gem to tourist Disneyland destination, where the tiny streets are full of souvenir shops and mediocre restaurants and where tourism’s consequences are damaging the area’s natural resources in concrete, even lethal, ways. (The floods of October 2011, for example, were devastating in large part because as tourism has replaced agriculture, the Cinque Terre’s terraced hills haven’t been maintained—meaning little resistance to the rains).

But, as a community, we do have influence. The same way the travel journalism community does. And that influence is growing.

With that influence, I think, comes responsibility. And it would be fantastic if discussion about this responsibility could be a part of our conversations from the get-go, while the community is still relatively new.

Of course, some of us already think about this, a lot. Some bloggers write about green travel and agritourism; many others make a point to write about “immersion travel,” which seems far more beneficial to local communities, at least to me, than slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am resort stays.

Peacocks at a local farm in Tuscany

Hanging out with peacocks at a cheese farm in Tuscany


Most notably of all, Passports with Purpose—a fantastic nonprofit started by bloggers Beth Whitman of “Wanderlust and Lipstick,” Debbie Dubrow of “Delicious Baby,” Michelle Duffy of “Wander Mom,” and Pam Mandel of “Nerd’s Eye View”—had a huge presence at the conference (and the smarts to lure people to their booth with cupcakes!). Their concept is great: Get the blogging community to rally behind one carefully-chosen project each year. This year, Passports with Purpose is raising $100,000 to fund the construction of five wells in Haiti. I’ll be participating, so keep an eye out on the site for how you can win great, Italy-related prizes.

But I think the conversation about responsibility, and ethics, and what we owe to the communities that we’re so lucky to travel to, live in, and write about, can—and should—extend beyond one (excellent!) cause a year.

Bloggers, travelers, readers: What do you think? Let me know in the comments!

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My Ode to Bella Napoli, for Mariner Magazine

Naples Italy best explored on foot!

It's no secret that I'm a sucker for Naples. In the spring/summer 2012 issue of Mariner, the official magazine of the Holland-America cruise line, you can find my ode to exploring this chaotic, crazy, but sempre bellissima southern city on foot… plus a piece on Naples' pizza by Lorenzo Carcaterra and some gorgeous photos. And yes, you can also read it online.

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The Week of Culture in Rome, for the NY Times

At the Palazzo Massimo during the Week of Culture

If you haven’t done so already, get thee to one of Italy’s many state-run museums, archaeological sites, and palaces, most of which are free right now for the Settimana della Cultura! Here in Rome, that means you can get into prize-worthy sites like the Palazzo Massimo (with its ancient Roman frescoes and other goodies, above) for free. The event ends April 22. For more, check out my piece on the Week of Culture over at the New York Times.

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